J.B. Reynolds

Writer

Tag: Bill Bryson

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook version of this while commuting to work. It’s a fascinating book, and I would often find myself sitting in my car in the carpark at work, reluctant to get out and start the day because I wanted to keep listening. I love the way Bryson has managed to take all these disparate ideas and historical scientific figures and bring them together and connect them in a meaningful way. He also manages to take complex scientific ideas and break them down and present them in a way that is easy to understand. And, of course, there is the gentle humour that runs through all of Bryson’s writing.

There are numerous anecdotes about scientists that provide a fascinating insight into the personalities behind their science. My favourite one was about Hennig Brand, a German alchemist who was trying to turn urine into gold but ended up inventing matches instead. One of the themes running through the book is just how much scientific knowledge has been acquired by accident.

There is much information contained in this book, and Bryson conveys an appealing sense of wonderment at what we know about the universe in which we live. But perhaps the most prominent theme running through the book is the idea that despite all our technological and scientific advances over the past few millennia, what we do know is still vastly, unimaginably outweighed by what we don’t know.

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Audiobooks Have Changed My Life

Audiobook on Iphone

Audiobook on iPhone – courtesy of athriftymrs.com

It is approximately, depending on traffic, road works, and the route I take, a fifty-minute commute from my home to the high school in the small, rural town where I teach. I normally carpool with a colleague three days a week, which is great—it saves me money on petrol and I enjoy the stimulating conversation. On the other two days, I drive by myself. Up until a few months ago, I listened to National Radio on the days I drove myself. This was okay. We don’t have television at home (we have a TV, but no TV reception—our TV is used to watch YouTube, Netflix and DVD’s), and listening to National Radio allowed me to keep abreast of what was happening in New Zealand and around the world. It was also better than the commercial radio stations I get reception for on my drive to work through the countryside, mainly because it doesn’t have ads and the presenters don’t babble a constant stream of inanities. However, there were a number of issues that detracted from my listening pleasure.

Firstly, it was often depressing. The way events are framed in the news media often focuses on the negative. Bad news sells more, apparently. According to the New Zealand Crime Statistics 2014 (the most recent year for which data was been collated and published), there were forty-one murders in New Zealand in 2014. This is a tragedy. One murder is too many, and New Zealand is, without question, a country afflicted with a disturbing underbelly of violence. But let me zoom out for a moment, and re-frame the numbers. These forty-one murders came from a total population of roughly 4.5 million people. What this means is that in 2014, roughly 4,499,958, or 0.99999067 percent of the population, were not murdered.  The non-murder rate was approximately 107,142 times greater than the murder rate! I’m not suggesting we should celebrate this, but we could at least acknowledge it. Listening to the news on National Radio (or anywhere, for that matter), you would never know that in New Zealand, you are 107,000 times more likely not to be murdered than you are to be murdered.

Secondly, there was a lot of repetition. Driving to work in the morning, I would frequently hear the same piece of news repeated three times. Granted, the depth of coverage might be different each time, but this would still get pretty boring pretty quickly.

Thirdly, the perspectives expressed were overwhelmingly those of white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Sometimes, these would be complemented by the perspectives of white, middle-aged, middle-class women. Whether or not I agreed with what they had to say, these people were almost always intelligent, well-educated, and articulate, and their views considered. It’s just that by using them as a filter—well, there’s an awful lot that gets filtered out.

In April of this year, I uploaded a selection of audiobooks onto my iPhone. I don’t know why I had never done this before. I’d just always equated reading with type on a page. I listened to music, I listened to the radio, but I read books. I was visiting my niece and her boyfriend in Wellington at the time and they were discussing how much they enjoyed listening to audiobooks. They suggested some titles they thought I might like, and we went from there. When I got back home, the first one I chose to listen to was On Writing by Stephen KingI listened to it in the car on the days I was driving myself to work. It’s a great book—part memoir,  part instruction manual—and I have written more about it here. Since then, I have listened to a number of other audiobooks. The first of these was Consider Phlebas, an early science-fiction novel by one of my favourite authors, Iain M. Banks, and the first to feature the advanced race of humans known collectively as the Culture. I had read this (the traditional way) many years before and had forgotten how action-packed it is. The next was  World War Zan abridged version of the novel by Max Brooks, containing the oral histories of an eclectic group of survivors of a global zombie apocalypse.  After that was  Children of the Sky, a curious science-fiction novel by Vernor Vingeabout the exploits of a group of humans who have crash-landed on an alien planet populated by creatures that most closely resemble intelligent dogs; and Hostage, a live recording of a drunken Charles Bukowski giving a poetry reading at a bar in Redondo Beach, California, in 1980. I am currently listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Again, this is a book I have read before, many years ago. I have subsequently forgotten almost everything I learned from it the first time. It’s a fascinating book, and I love the way Bryson makes an array of scientific arcana so accessible, easy to understand, and entertaining.

Every single one of these audiobooks has been more interesting and entertaining to listen to than National Radio. They have taken my mind to some captivating places. I keep finding myself sitting in the carpark at work in the morning, or my driveway at home in the evening, wishing I didn’t have to get out of the car and enter the real world again. Perhaps the most entertaining of the audiobooks I have listened to so far has been World War Z, due in no small part to the sumptuous quality of the audio recording. It is the only one to feature a full cast of voice actors. No doubt this is an expensive thing to do, but it does minimise the likelihood of experiencing voice fatigue. I felt a little of that with Children of the Sky, where the narrator, Oliver Wyman, does, for the most part, a stellar job. There were perhaps only three or four main characters whose voices I didn’t like. This isn’t much, especially considering the extensive cast of characters featured in the novel. However, the recording is almost twenty-eight hours long, and these characters featured enough for it to prove a minor source of irritation within the overall experience.

The best thing about these audiobooks is that it has got me “reading” again. Lately, I have done very little reading, in the traditional sense. Since the beginning of the school year in February, I have read only two books. The first of these, Girl in a BandI read quite quickly. It’s the autobiography of Kim Gordon, the bass player from one of my favourite bands, Sonic Youth, and a woman I have a lot of admiration for. The second of these, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmarestook me months and months to finish. It’s a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. The time it took me to read is no indication of the quality of the writing. Oates is an incredible writer, and it’s a great book, and truly frightening in parts. However, the only time I have available to read is the hour or so I have between putting the kids to bed and going to sleep myself. More often than not, I have chosen to spend this time watching episodes of television dramas. This is not a guilty pleasure. I am one of those people who believes we are currently experiencing a golden era of television drama (long may it continue), and the shows I have been watching—Game of Thrones, Fargo, Better Call Saul—are wonderfully written. But one thing books are great for, and much better at than television, is engaging the imagination. With television, you don’t have to visualise anything—it’s all pre-visualised for you by somebody else. With books, especially fiction, you have to visualise everything. This is the true joy of reading. I can’t read and drive at the same time, but listening to audiobooks has allowed me to take the chunks of downtime I have when commuting and put it to good use, engaging my imagination. And they have given me true joy. Audiobooks have made a genuine improvement to my quality of life.

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